The staffing of a presidency is vital in shaping its character. But each presidency is ultimately stamped by the personality and inclinations of the incumbent, modified by the fortuitous circumstances that force themselves upon his term. Kennedy said that to judge a president one has to know "what he had going for him." George Washington cut the pattern for the early presidencies which were aimed at making a nation by constructing a sense of national unity out of the varying sectional interests. Above all, aware of the mode of British politics in his day, he was opposed to factionalism—although in the end he could not prevent its rise—and the development of "the demon of party spirit." John Adams, too, tried to eschew politics. Nevertheless, the election of Jefferson in 1800 forced a change. He was the leader of the party—although the president as his party's leader was not accepted for another century. However, the role of the president as leader in foreign affairs and in military matters—foreshadowed by Washington's handlings of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794—was firmly set by Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803 and by Madison's unambiguous role as commander-in-chief of the army during the War of 1812.
Jackson's election in 1828 after a long and celebrated military career, brought to the White House the first "man of the people." As such Jackson could sway Congress and shape legislation, so that he may be regarded as the maker of the modern presidency. Even so, its character has been constantly refashioned. The emergence of the slavery issue dwarfed the presidents and the candidates for the office for a long generation. None of Jackson's eight successors was reelected. The power of the presidency was reasserted and dramatized by Lincoln in his ultimately successful conduct of the Civil War. He drew to himself greater power than any that had ever been exercised. Although he had come into politics as a Whig who believed that the president is entitled only to limited authority, Lincoln became, in practice, a Jacksonian. His immediate successors, enveloped in domestic questions, including the racial upheaval caused by emancipation, tended to offer few programs for Congress to act upon. Rather, they saw the presidency as coordinate with Congress, not its director.
Social problems at the beginning of the twentieth century offered new opportunities for a creative presidency. The need and the man were combined in the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, a war hero and dynamo of energy, who used the penny press and the muckraking magazines to make himself a leader of popular causes, including the management of overseas "possessions" and the assault on over-weening trusts. He regarded the presidency as a "bully pulpit," an unmatched place from which to advocate a program. TR made himself the undisputed leader of the nation and his party, the source of innovation in public policies and the principal maker of political news. This conception of the presidency transcended party lines. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who came to the White House in 1913, was a former professor of political science who admired immensely the British parliamentary system. Still, he came to accept the Rooseveltian view of the presidency and to believe that if the president correctly interprets the public temper and sets forth appropriate programs, he is "irresistible."
In the 1920s and early 1930s the successive presidents were relatively supine. Calvin Coolidge said that it was not the role of the president to send bills to Congress but the business of Congress to send the president bills to sign. However, the example of Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson remained in the bloodstream of the office. The terrible force of the Great Depression allowed Franklin D. Roosevelt to exceed even his distant cousin Theodore's broadened presidency. He regarded the White House as essentially a place for moral leadership. Nevertheless, in his inaugural address he promised to seek "broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency." When the threat of the total-itarian powers to the security of the United States came to seem an even greater emergency, his unprecedented use of the prestige of his office made the presidency more powerful than ever. The high point came in 1942 when FDR said that if Congress did not repeal a certain law, he himself would repeal it.
In the aftermath of World War II, the power of the office was potentially greater than ever. President Truman's remarkable initiatives in foreign policy which included the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and participation in the Korean War, extended more tangibly than ever the leadership of the presidency beyond the borders of the United States. Subsequently, Eisenhower's immortal name as the Liberator of Europe enabled him to be less aggressive and strident in exercising leadership during the cold war than Truman had been. Kennedy's inheritance from Ike of an all-powerful office made possible his now-famous defy to "every nation, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
This vastly enlarged conception, labeled by critics the "Imperial Presidency," came to grief in Kennedy's abortive invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and it suffered disgrace in the administration of Richard Nixon, tarnished by the Watergate episode and related crimes. Next, the failed war in Vietnam and the hostage crisis in Iran stained respectively the Johnson and Carter administrations and further weakened the hand and authority of the presidency abroad. Although President Reagan by his ebullient style and rhetoric could insist that it was once more "Morning in America," the presidency had been shorn of some of its power, and substantially lessened in prestige.
A number of events further sullied the office, notably the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s and the personal acts of President Clinton that led to his impeachment and trial in 1998. But by the serendipity of history, the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 showed once again the vitality and power of the presidential office. President George W. Bush, in masterly fashion, drew the country together for the long twilight struggle that lay ahead. Shifting gears from domestic concerns that had almost exclusively dominated his plans, he transformed his presidency overnight, employing the explicit and implied powers of the office to meet the mortal threat to the homeland. The president of the United States had become, like some of his great predecessors, the voice of hope and inspiration for freedom-loving people everywhere in the world.
Editor's Note: For further reading on the institution of the presidency, consult the classified bibliography in Appendix A. In addition, the annotated bibliographies at the end of each presidential essay identify works that may illuminate the impact of individual presidents on the office.